“You’re using me,” I said.
“That might be true, but I also love you.”
One is the Lady of the Waking Waters, an immortal mermaid. The other is a thief, who steals lives until a wish can be fulfilled, and a life-changing choice must be made.
I only led the worst of men down to the Waking Waters and death, down to my love in the pool below the falls. I only led the foul men with filth on their tongues, the rich men who contrived to rule other men. I only led the men with hatred in their hearts and iron in their hands. I spurred them on with tales of hidden silver or the sight of my girlish thigh, down out from the mountain town of Scilla, down to the hills and the pines and the ruttish perfume of wildflowers.
All so that the Lady of the Waters might love me.
Well, that and so I could rob their corpses.
The morning sun sat low in the western sky, and the streets were empty near the edge of town. The man with me that day was handsome. He was twenty-five years my senior, with three teeth of silver, a gold-hilted sword and dagger, and a string of badges he’d won by gambling his life for the King’s glory in a foreign land. A town like Scilla saw men like him only once a year, only for the night market.
He’d found me walking with a basket of flowers. I caught his eye and smiled him over and yet he seemed to think he was the one propositioning me.
For a moment, I considered laying with him anyways, without taking part in his death, maybe just taking a few of his things while he slept. For all his pomp and arrogance, I liked the shape of his jaw and the fervor in his eyes.
We walked arm in arm away from the market, the daisies under my arm.
“And you swear you’re not a working girl?”
There was no good answer to a question like that. The answer was no: I don’t exchange labor for coin, I murder and rob. Of course I couldn’t tell him that, nor could I in good conscience distance myself from those among my friends who work more honestly.
I giggled instead. Men seem to like when I giggle at them. I don’t understand how they don’t see through it.
He jangled his full purse, laughing his horrid laugh. “Too many people think only about coin.” As if it would be strange for those of us without to be concerned about acquiring what we need to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, house ourselves. “It’s weakness, pure and simple, and what people don’t understand is that weakness is our enemy. We must kill the weakest parts of ourselves as surely as we put down our weakest foes before they gather strength.”
He must have done terrible things to win awards like those pinned to his chest. If I focused on that, I could excuse the terrible things I planned to do.
“I know a better place than your room at the inn,” I said.
“If you’re not a working girl, there’s no shame to be seen with you.”
“I know a place, a better place, where the wind runs cool off the water. Where I can rinse, where you can rinse, where we’d taste our best for one another while only the deer of the forest look on.”
“You’ve done this before,” he said. He was hungry at my words, at the thought of watching me bathe.
I had. Twice before. He would be my third.
“So have you,” I said.
“What do I call you?” he asked.
“A harlot’s name.”
“Fitting, then,” I said, starting out for the edge of town with him in my wake. I didn’t ask his name, because I didn’t care to know it and because no one would ever call him it or anything else again.
He followed me along the long road that wound down from Scilla. I promised him it wasn’t far, and I wasn’t lying. We skirted off from the road into the pines and followed the sound of the water. We went downhill and downhill, to the tall and tranquil Waking Waters falls, then downhill to the pool at their base.
There are more impressive waterfalls in this world, but the Waking Waters has a beauty of the sort that has no need to be spectacular. On midsummer evenings, like that one, the sun sets behind the top of the falls and makes it glow while the shadows turn darker everywhere else.
My quarry’s eyes flit across the woods around us, as though suddenly aware I might be leading him to ambush, but he was looking in the wrong place.
“After you,” he said, gesturing at the water. He didn’t trust me. He was a terrible man, but not an entirely stupid one.
I slipped off my shift with a smile, first at the man and then at the world around me. Wind carried a bit of mist and the scents of summer off of the water, and I strode toward and into the pool.
With each step, the water lapped at my skin. With each step, the water washed away the filth of poverty and the filth of the town and the filth of work–honest work, illicit work, it’s all work.
He watched me, of course. I would have watched me too. I was beautiful.
The Lady found me when I was waist-deep, running her human hand along my thigh. I dove. She swam alongside me, pressing her body to mine, with her bare breasts and her fish-tail.
We kissed, there, underwater, and I ran my tongue along her sharp fish teeth until just a drop of blood found its way into her mouth. I liked to tease her. I liked when she was hungry.
We emerged. The man on the bank, now stripped down to muscle, watched with wide, incredulous eyes.
“The Lady of the Waking Waters,” I said, by way of introduction.
I needn’t say more. I’d never needed say more.
She’s never told me a more proper name. I call her the Lady because I must call her something. For her own purposes, she has no need of a name.
A mermaid has her own magic, stronger than that of any creature born with legs, and even though she smiled and her teeth were white, thin razors, her eyes were bright and hazel. Her hair changed color as the sun, the wind, and the mist played off of it. Her skin was a perfect medium-brown. She could enchant any man alive.
He walked into the water, willingly, and I stepped out onto land.
He didn’t scream, because she removed most of his throat in the first bite. The rust-red, blood-red water slipped away over the rocks to feed the forest.
It’s always beautiful to watch someone perform their life’s work. The man we’d murdered, perhaps he’d been beautiful at war. He might have been beautiful on top of me, inside me. But the Lady, she was beautiful as she stripped flesh from bone.
Only the worst of men. I had honor as a thief, so damned if I wouldn’t have honor as a murderer.
I went to his belt, found his purse, and took those coins he’d rattled. The sun was hot on me as I worked my way through his clothes, unraveling the gold wire woven into his hems, unraveling the gold wire he’d wrapped around the hilt of his dagger to announce his wealth. I’d have to find someone to melt down the medals.
At last, I turned my attention from my work and back to the pool. The Lady was sunbathing on the rocks on the far side, and the water ran clear once more. She smiled, and I strode back into the water, back out to the Lady, my lover.
I put my mouth on hers, and she was gentle with me, kinder than anyone with two legs had ever been. When a mermaid’s lips are against your skin, time slows. The white noise of the waterfall became a low and quiet roar and I saw every sweet drop of water as it cascaded down the mountainside.
She pleased me with her hands and mouth while my feet dangled in the cold pool, and she had me breathing fast and easy, fast and hard, fast and easy, fast and hard, while the world crawled by around me.
For a moment, with the last of the sun on me, I had coin enough, and I had love enough.
“Can I just stay here with you?” I asked. The moon had risen, a crescent scythe in the field of stars. I hadn’t told her of my plans. In truth, I was afraid she’d dissuade me.
She was in the water to her neck, and I laid on my side on a rock with my face near hers. The roar of the waterfall cut out the sounds of the night, yet I could hear my heart hammering in my chest.
“Of course not,” she said. “I live in the water, and it would be the death of you by drowning to join me.”
“I don’t care if it kills me,” I said, weeping.
“I do,” she said. “I want you to still bring me men every few years when your hair has gone white and your skin hangs loose on your frame.”
“You only want to see me every few years,” I said.
“We’re not the same,” she told me. “It’s not possible for us to lead the same life.”
“What if it was possible, though? What if I changed? What if I found magic enough?”
“I love you as you are, Laria,” the Lady said. She brushed the wet hair, plastered to my face, away from my eyes. “I love the way things are between us.” She was sad, and smiling.
“You’re using me,” I said.
“That might be true, but I also love you.”
The world was blurry, through the haze of my tears. She kissed my cheeks, awkwardly, like a boy just learning what romance tastes like. Time slowed again, and I realized no matter how fast she’d killed that man with her teeth, he’d had all the time in the world to experience death.
I envied him, a short moment, for losing his life to the Lady’s teeth. Why are death and love and sex and change all tied up together in our heads?
But as her fingers ran down my neck, I grew calm. I was as happy as I ever was. She climbed out of the water, her tail transformed to legs. I laid on my bare back, and she straddled my hips, and we let time run slow once more.
The night was full-dark, with clouds obscuring the moon, when I made it back to Scilla. The sun had gone to rest, but the town had not. Vendors from all over the island were setting up under eaves and on the cobbles. Fifty weeks a year, my home was a dry husk of a town. Two, it drew the finest wares and wanderers in the country.
There was good work to be had at the night market. All kinds of work, legal and not. But with the weight of gold in my purse, I had no need. I wasn’t there for work. I was there for the witch.
A heavily-scarred cheesemonger cut into a wheel of something pungent and rich, and my stomach informed me I hadn’t eaten since the sun was at its peak.
“He’s sleeping off wine, that’s what I figure,” I heard. Next to the cheesemonger, two men-at-arms sat on a bench eating fried lamb, their polearms resting in the nooks of their arms. They spoke in the way of men who aren’t used to manners, of men who don’t care who hears them.
“The King’s Fifty are not the sort to abandon their posts,” the other man said, his voice full of gravel.
I’d killed one of the King’s Fifty. Pride and terror fought for control of my emotions.
“He’s probably fucking or drunk or just fucking drunk,” the first man laughed. “He’ll get here.”
I hurried away into the crowd, lest they somehow see the heft of my purse and the medals within. I had to be careful. There likely wasn’t a moneychanger disreputable enough to trust with my gold, not even the wire. As rumors raced through the market–a knight has been slain–my caution escalated to fear, and the physical sensation coursed through my body.
If I couldn’t trust a moneychanger, then better to trust the witch.
I found her tent set between a child selling counterfeit treasure maps and a cooper as old as the moon. Such was the night market.
Henrietta the Haggard, people call her, though it said Henrietta the Honored on the tapestry hanging on the side of her tent. I couldn’t read it, but once I saw a gentry-girl read it aloud to her father. I used to think it was funny, how Henrietta the Haggard had the wrong name written on her tent. Now it’s not so funny. I know what it’s like to need to advertise to the world what you are, so that people don’t just assume you are what they think you are.
“I have the coin to pay you,” I told Henrietta.
The thick canvas walls blocked the light from the street, and only the red ember glow from a dying brazier lit either of us at all. Thick incense, of a scent too exotic to place, tickled my nose.
Weary lines were etched into the witch’s dry skin, and she looked as old as the town, as old as the kingdom. Henrietta had as much magic as anyone on the island; she could look however she wanted. She chose to look decrepit. I liked that about her.
“You wish to become a creature of the lakes and rivers and the sea?” she asked.
Henrietta frowned. “Better to just let me read your palm and go.”
I pulled the coins and the coiled gold wire out from my purse and placed them on the counter. They gleamed, even in the scarce light of the embers.
“A spell like that would leave me drained a fortnight, at least. I’d lose all my other work. That’s quite a wealth of gold you have, child, and it could buy most anything in the market. It cannot buy Henrietta for a fortnight.”